Is Michael Caine too good for today’s weak-tea movies?
Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Sept. 9, 2021
If you only know Michael Caine from playing mentors, villains in the shadows and increasingly smaller supporting roles in Christopher Nolan movies, you’re missing out. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Caine was electric. Often cast as a dangerous man in a depraved world — Alfie, Get Carter, Pulp — the actor got viewers on his side regardless how questionable his methods were.
Best Sellers, one of those Canadian productions trying to pass for American with an eye on international sales, has little to do with those morally ambiguous titles but at least it puts the 88-year-old superstar front and center.
The film takes place in the literary world (this is the most Mongrel Media movie ever). Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation) is the head of a failing publishing house. She inherited the job from her father but after one too many young-adult flops, the barbarians are at the gate dangling money for the publisher’s catalogue.
In desperation, Lucy dusts off old contracts and discovers that a literary lion owes her company a book. The author in question, Harris Shaw (Caine), lives in semi-isolation, imbibes copious amounts of whiskey, chain-smokes cigars and grows more insouciant by the minute. Think Salinger meets Hemingway, with a dash of Philip Roth.
Luckily for Lucy, Shaw has also been writing and, after some arm twisting, delivers a novel ready for print. That’s just half the battle. The publicity push needs an author who’s a salesperson but Shaw has the social skills of a rude cockatoo: good enough to go viral but nobody wants to actually buy his book.
Best Sellers is plagued with missed opportunities. The idea of millennials responding to an embittered writer critical of boomers and Gen-Xers should have been a goldmine. Instead, the movie goes with lazy hipster clichés and softball criticism of branding (Shaw’s favorite word, “bullshite”, becomes a trending topic and his delivery, a YouTube sensation).
The jabs at the publishing industry are broad and not particularly original (overreliance on YA novels, fans more willing to buy t-shirts than actual books). A good example is Cary Elwes hamming it up as a Truman Capote-like critic. Definitely funny but not right for a movie aiming for realism.
Plaza and Caine play to their strengths: the former, an abrasive truthteller; the latter, a done-in old-timer wearing his emotions on his sleeve. They are Best Sellers’ highlight: their bickering is predictably amusing and one wishes the movie had leaned on that instead of the weak plot. Meanwhile, Ellen Wong (Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim vs the World) busts her comedic chops as Lucy’s assistant and reminds us there are not enough movies with Ellen Wong in them.
First-time feature director Lina Roessler does the right thing allowing Caine to run wild (how much control can you possibly exert over a verified legend, anyway?) but overall doesn’t elevate Best Sellers above a collection of mildly droll moments. The use of the score to punctuate every early scene is irritating and reeks of insecurity.
Here’s hoping for at least one more starring role for Caine… in a movie with substance.